Feb 11, 2016

Lessons from Suzy Cube: Level Design Breakdown

#suzycube #gamedev #indiedev #madewithunity

In this Lessons from Suzy Cube article, we are going to look at a section by section breakdown of one level currently in development for the game. Let's dive in!

When I first started studying the levels from Super Mario 3D Land, something quickly became apparent: Each level is a self contained collection of challenges focused around a particular game play mechanism which is mostly unique to that level.

Upon closer inspection, I began to notice a pattern emerging from level to level. It seemed to me that each level started by introducing the player to the particular mechanism that formed the core challenge of the level by presenting the player with a fairly simple and safe task, followed by one or two progressively more difficult and dangerous versions of the task.

The Narrative Structure of a Level

One of the ideas I've learned from working closely with level designers throughout my career is that a good level should be structured like a good story. In scrutinizing the levels in Super Mario 3D Land, the structure I thought I saw emerging reminded me of the narrative structure I learned in a college script writing class based on Syd Field's Paradigm:

The Syd Field Paradigm of narrative structure

This paradigm follows a traditional western narrative three act structure. The basic idea is that at the beginning of the first act, the author introduces the setting, the characters and gets the story going. By the end of the first act, we hit the first plot point in which something happens to set the main plot in motion. During act two, the story is developed through the main struggle or confrontation, it is the meat of the action. By the mid point, tensions are high and as the second act draws to a close, a second plot point reorients the story and sets things up for the conclusion. Finally, act three is when the story culminates to its climax before the author can take us down through the conclusion, hopefully, tying up the last few loose ends in the plot.

The way I had mapped the structure of Super Mario 3D Land levels onto this paradigm looked something like this:
  • Act 1
    • Introduce the setting of the level. Introduce the level's core mechanism with a safe and easy challenge. (e.g. safe from falls)
  • Act 2
    • Bring back the core mechanism with a similar challenge but with added danger. (e.g. over bottomless pit)
  • Act 3
    • One last challenge, ramp up the complexity and add even more danger. (e.g. added enemies to navigate around). This last challenge leads to the end of the level.

It turns out, the designers behind the game were, indeed, inspired by narrative structure, I was simply mistaken about which structure inspired them.

Four Acts are Better than Three?

According to this interview with the game's producer, Koichi Hayashida, the structure used to guide the design of the levels in Super Mario 3D Land is actually based on oriental four act narrative structure known, in Japan, as kishoutenketsu. It is the structure used, for example, in Japanese four panel comic strips and is comprised of the Introduction, Development, Twist and Conclusion. In the game, this breakdown can be used to describe a level like so:
  • Introduction
    • Set up a situation early in the level which forces the player to interact with the level's core mechanism without any danger.
  • Development (challenge 1)
    • Set up a tougher challenge centred around the core mechanism. This challenge also includes an element of danger, forcing the player to gain some mastery over the challenge or fail.
  • Twist (challenge 2)
    • A new challenge now faces the player. The core mechanism is the same but it's either used in a new way or in conjunction with new elements to mix things up.
  • Conclusion
    • One last use of the core mechanism to set up a challenge that should, at this point be pretty easy for the player, leaving them with a sense of accomplishment before reaching the end of the level.

Let's Apply What We've Learned

As I design levels for Suzy Cube, I try my best to keep this structure in mind. Some of my designs lean more toward the three act paradigm making use of two main challenge areas though I do try my best to think in terms of the kishoutenketsu or four act structure. So, let's have a closer look at a level from Suzy Cube and see how the different parts fit into this four act structure.

Map of Level 1-4

This is Level 1-4, it is a snow themed level centred around button activated temporary blocks and cannon which fire player seeking rockets. Roughly speaking, the layout of the level can be split into four parts like so:

Level 1-4 split into four parts

Let's dive deeper and look at each of these parts and how I try to make sure that each part prepares the player for what they will have to face later in the level.

Going in for a Closer Look

You start Level 1-4 surrounded by guardrails, hopefully, making it obvious which way to go. To the left you can see a snake enemy guarding some hidden coins. This enemy simply goes around on a set path and poses no threat to you unless you engage with it. To the right, a button on the floor is visible.

By approaching the button, you are likely to come within range of the level's first cannon. This cannon will periodically fire player seeking rockets however, the fact the cannon is in a sunken recess means the rockets will simply hit the ledge, introducing cannons without actually threatening the player.

If you're curious about the cannon, you may continue to the right. There, you will find some conveniently placed rock blocks to shield you from the rockets.

If you do use these rock blocks to protect yourself, you'll find out a couple of things: 1. Rock blocks explode when hit by a rocket, and 2. Rock blocks can contain goodies. In this case, two coins and a Heart Hat. For the curious, wearing a Heart Hat allows Suzy to take a single hit from a hazard or enemy without dying. She, instead, loses the hat.

Now back to our button from earlier. In order to progress through the level, you will have to press the button, which can be done simply by walking onto it. The will cause a series of temporary blocks to appear. You have now been introduced to the two main mechanisms of the level, player seeking rockets and button activated temporary blocks.

Example behaviour of the temporary blocks

These temporary blocks appear in sequence and, after a few seconds, turn red and disappear. Notice how, in this introductory set up, there is no danger of Suzy falling to her death.

The first set of temporary blocks simply lead to a second button which activates another set of blocks which lead up to a landing, allowing you to proceed.

Once you get up, you may decide to proceed to the right using the button or go exploring to the left, where you'll be met by a couple of snowmen...

...Whose heads come to life and attack you! The snowmen are just there as a nice surprise. Remember, when designing levels, always include a few surprises to delight and capture the attention of your players. Every time you are able to surprise your players you plant a question in their mind: "What other surprises await me?" This question can be a powerful motivator for them to continue playing!

Continuing past the snowmen will lead you to a simple timing puzzle. If you hit the upper button, you won't see its effect, but if you continue to the right...

...you may just find that it produces the three blocks which give you access to the first of three stars hidden in the level. You'll have to be quick to grab it before the blocks disappear, though. Once you grab the star, you can make your way to the teleporter to the upper left. Stars in Suzy Cube are used to unlock boss levels and special levels and are, generally, either hard to find or hard to get, or sometimes, as in this case, a little of both.

Now back to the main path. Remember the first two sets of blocks? Well, they lead to this button which creates an S shaped path to proceed. This is significant for a couple of reasons: 1. It looks nicer than a straight line and 2. If you simply runs to the right expecting the third block to appear there, you will find yourself falling down to the area with the cannon and having to make your way back up. The lesson here is: Block bridges may not always take on the shape you expect.

Pressing on, you'll find two more sets of buttons with blocks leading up to a simple confrontation with three snowman heads. Still nothing inherently dangerous, just getting you used to the blocks and buttons. The flat bit with the enemies is there as a sort of rest stop for you to get some extra coins and feel powerful by disposing of the enemies.

Another button, of course. This time, there's no safety net so you must watch your step!

You have, truly progressed past the Introduction at this point and are rewarded for it with a checkpoint.

As you enter the first true challenge of the level, the Development, there's one more lesson for you which is that button activated blocks don't always appear next to each other. This simple challenge teaches you this while still making it safe to fall and try again.

By advancing a bit more, you'll activate a nearby cannon. If you chose to avoid the cannon at the start of the level, you should get a quick lesson in rockets and rock blocks at this point.

To reiterate: They blow up, and they can hide stuff. Like another Heart Hat!

If you're curious what the switch to the left does, activating it will create a way to a teleporter which will transport you to a timed challenge area where you can find the second star.

In here, you have twenty seconds to use the rockets from the two cannons to destroy the blocks in order to find the star hidden within them. This kind of change of pace is important from time to time to mix things up and keep the experience from getting stale. Notice, though, how the challenge is totally in line with one of the core mechanisms of the level. It's different but not out of place.

After completing the star challenge, or choosing to ignore it, you must proceed around the cannon across narrow platforms. This section is all about dealing with the rockets chasing you. The platforms atop which you are running are the same size as the temporary blocks, but will, of course, stick around as long as you need. the only pressure is from the cannon firing rockets. Once you get to the other side, you'll be able to use that hunk of rock blocks, near the top right, to dispose of any rocket still chasing you.

Hopefully, you're now well prepared to make it across this bridge of temporary blocks while another cannon fires on you. You've learned to jump over gaps between blocks, you've learned to avoid a rocket while doing it over permanent platforms, not put it together and don't get hit!

After the rather nerve wracking proposition to jump across gaps of blocks that disappear under you while getting chased by rockets, you're offered a slight break. A break from falling anyway. In this section you're given some coins to collect as a cannon fires on you. You need to press the button to proceed upward, which actually sets up a fun gag: If you're being chased by a rocket from the left, it's almost guaranteed that hitting the switch will cause a block to appear right between you and the rocket making for a great and narrow escape.

After this, you can use the blocks to climb up where you'll be faced with another similar section which is currently being redesigned. This then leads us to the Twist!

The Twist comes in the form of a section comprised of a number of challenges involving temporary blocks with gaps to avoid while being chased by rockets from, at least, two cannons at once at any particular moment.

Notice the callback to the early S shaped bridge of blocks? But do you also notice the gaps at either end of the bridge? In the previous image, you can also see how the resting platform before the next button also has a set of protective rock blocks on it but unlike the ones in the Development section of the level, these are placed in the middle of the pillar structure. Even staying safe is tougher in the Twist. Since rockets are now coming at you from multiple cannons at once, you'll have to run around and use the rock blocks more deftly to protect yourself.

Multiple rockets chasing you and gaps to jump over. It's a short distance, sure, but with so much to put keep up the tension, it may well skirt the edge of feeling overwhelming. Once you get to the next solid island, you can use the raised bit in the bottom right to block rockets coming from that direction and there's a recess you can drop down onto off to the right.

Dropping down to that recess will, however, trigger a bridge of blocks to extend to the third and final star. This is a speed and dexterity challenge as these blocks give you barely enough time to get to the star and back before disappearing.

With the last star in your possession, you can now proceed to hit the button up top to activate a long L shaped bridge. This final challenge is actually easier as there is only a single cannon firing on you. However, with your pulse still racing, you may not notice. Once you cross the blocks, there's a nice big terrain feature you can use to protect yourself from any rocket still chasing you.

Congratulations, you've made it to the Conclusion! A few coins and some easy features on which to jump will lead you to a final button.

This last button simply activates a series of blocks which extend to and form a platform around the goal. Unlike the normal blocks, these will actually stick around permanently. It's one last little bit of jumping for you to show off how good you've gotten at it.

And there you have it, Stage Cleared! Over the span of one level that takes about three and a half minutes to complete, you've learned to use floor buttons to make blocks appear and how to get away from player seeking rockets. Though some of these elements may return in later levels, they are unlikely to ever return together and will instead be used in new combinations to create fresh new challenges. In this way, every level tells its own story following the same simple structure.

Ok, Time for a Recap

Level 1-4 is all about temporary blocks and player seeking rockets. Here is how it all breaks down when peering through the lens of kishoutenketsu:
  • Introduction
    • Early, safe, encounters with buttons, temporary blocks and cannons introduce the player to these elements without posing much of a threat.
  • Development
    • Some challenges are set up in which players must negotiate bridges of temporary blocks while a cannon fires rockets at them.
  • Twist
    • The player is now asked to traverse bottomless pits over temporary block bridges with gaps while simultaneously being chased by multiple rockets at once.
  • Conclusion
    • Some freebie coins and one last temporary (though not really) bridge to the goal.
This basic structure underlies the design of all of my levels for Suzy Cube. Some levels, like Level 1-4, have very long intro sections, while others might have players spend more time in the twist, but my goal is always the same, to introduce a new activity for the player to discover or a new combination of old elements and to develop these over the course of each level so that each level can have its own flavour and tell its own little story... In four acts.

Bonus Videos!

Thanks for checking out this Lessons from Suzy Cube blog post. If you are interested, here is a video of me running through Level 1-4 (ignoring detours for the stars) so you can see it all in action. Please keep in mind that the level is still in development and that anything you see in the video, and indeed throughout this article, is still subject to change.

Also, Mark Brown of Game Maker's Toolkit made a great video on the use of kishoutenketsu in Super Mario 3D World, the Wii U followup to Super Mario 3D Land.

Thoughts or comments? Leave them bellow. Let me know how you approach level design and what you think makes for a fun and memorable level.

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